Towards A Digital Dreaming (Electronic Songlines)
Systems of information delivery have existed well before the electronic age and how they transform and mutate to fulfill Aboriginal expectations is a wonder to observe. Historically Aboriginal song-lines and song cycles begin with the sunrise and follow the wandering of the first person [an everyman] who travels across the landscape. As he travels he sees and names varied plants, animals, climatic forces and in naming them animates them. They experience elation, pain, joy, or sorrow; and are exposed to a whole range of emotions. These journeys, and the sensed and reasoned knowledge acquired, is retained as sets of myths, and bundles of mnemonic signs that become the shared values and laws of that society, communicated through stories, myths, rituals and art to each generation. The use of information technology could work as new ways to propagate these myths?
Doing a dhawu; to tell a story. Of course there are many forms of story. In the 1980s and 90s I lived in a small community on the north coast of Australia. Aboriginal communities in modern times are consulted on everything that happens from the sewerage contract to the school syllabus, with an ever-increasing number of government agencies and bureaucracies.
It’s said that they spend half their lives being consulted but it’s
questionable how much they’re listened to. Historically people had a social practice of telling a dhawu; a story. In this ritual soliloquy, an adult; man or woman, paces back and forth in a public space, seemingly talking into the void – elaborating on some personal, family, or community grievance. This appears to be a longstanding ritual.
When this new community came into being initially people were called together by voice but soon took to using a battery powered hand-held megaphone, Usually a screeching feedback would be followed by a loud ‘ngamaka’ [can you hear me]. The megaphone would be dispensed with usually and the formal meeting with the latest visiting bureaucrat would proceed. The technological device was only used for ‘business’ purposes and never for
Over a number of years the town grew and a large PA system mounted in the council office replaced the megaphone. This was used to announce meetings and other public notices but now people with a grievance would storm the office and seize the microphone – the feedback would screech and blast
followed by ‘ngamaka’, only this time people throughout the town would look up from what they were doing and shout back ‘Yo [yes]!’in answer to carry on this strange, all enveloping but ambient, conversation.
Such new technology creates a community of it’s own where a public space exists to pass on these stories and develop new ones. The new digital type of technology suffers in an Aboriginal context from economic bias in that computers are relatively still expensive where access to even basic electric power can inhibit and deny Aboriginal involvement in the electronic frontier. It’s joked that Toyota set up Arnhem Land to allow Aboriginal people to test their vehicles and test them they do in a myriad of unusual ways. They Toyota has passed its tests the computer has not. It’s robustness to a robust environment of heat, dust, humidity and insects has also to survive it’s real testing. Further for a relatively illiterate population the keyboard itself inhibits real engagement. However it is there in the mix and a growing number of Aboriginal teachers, and other workers are appreciating the power of this tool.